Art, Theatre, Music, Workshops, More.
By Joey C. Kantor
I started the Katherine Gianaclis Park for the Arts in March of 2002 with the help of the arts cooperative Laser Vida. I had met the president of the group, Joe Cartino, through a friend and I invited him over to a painting party I was having at the park for a Shakespearean production I was involved with at the time.
Laser Vida had a long list of members and I gravitated to them through osmosis. I would hear about Laser Vida now and then and considered them the most cutting-edge arts group in Vegas even though I didn’t know them. What I didn’t know is that I would be there at the end of their journey. Not long after giving them an office at the park for the arts they broke up. One of the founders, Christoph Ritenour, even threw a small parade to mark the ending of the group.
But Laser Vida had kicked off the park for the arts nevertheless and with the stragglers I kept my little project going for the next eight years. Over the years the park was known as being as DIY as it gets. Coming to the park you knew it was low rent, a junk yard out back. Clearly not a place funded by anybody with money. Instead, it was funded by me working as a substitute school teacher for CCSD. I spent my day doing that and then would come home and have an average of two to three shows per week.
I let anybody in. If you called me on the phone I would give you a show. Gregory Crosby, an old arts mainstay from the time of Cafe Roma in the 90s and who was writing for, I believe, Citylife Magazine, the number one alternative arts newspaper in the city, called the park “a thin dirt lot.” Oddly though whenever someone wrote of the park they would always start talking about how primitive and DIY the place is but always end up talking about the experiences they had from the performers who showed up.
The KGPA was once proclaimed by Citylife, in one of its “best of” issues, the best place in the city to hear local music. It was true. Most every band we had at the park came right out of Vegas. We were big in art, music and theatre at the park so we had “scenes.” We always had a great music scene. I remember sitting on the couch while F.S. Bloom performed his industrial electronica in the Blue Room and looking around and seeing six or seven people and thinking to myself “This is the pick of the week.” And it was. Citylife had decided that that show in my living room was probably the best show you could see in all of Vegas for that week. I chuckled.
But I knew why someone would consider that show the best thing to see that day in a town filled with entertainment. It was authentic. The music was pure and highly original. The KGPA found excellence in every corner. I never turned down someone who wanted to do a show at the park.
But people who remember the park remember the shows, the freedom of the shows, the fact that there were no cops around and yet everybody always got along. Some of the shows that we had over the years included The Yard Dogs Traveling Roadshow from the Bay Area which included Micah Grainger who also happened to have been one of the founders of Laser Vida. Micah grew up in Boulder City. The Yard Dogs were multi-talented people, not just musicians but artists too. They worked on my old shack exhibit, turned it into the BBBco (the Bootleg, Bottle and Bone) and built a mythology up around it. The BBBco was the evidence given to the Clark County official who formally condemned the park in 2004 as a visual nuisance. The park was immaculate to me but was designed with the philosophy of Wabi Sabi which allows imperfection to remain to provide a feeling of impermanance and therefore allow one to free themselves up to live for what is important instead of trying to always stop deterioration.
But if I were to grouse about the park I could go all day. I own the park with my brother and ultimately the park closed because of this relationship. We just couldn’t see eye to eye. But I got in a lot of good years of performances and events before that. We had other circus type performances with Circus Contraption and The Know Nothing Zirkuz Zideshow which included an intermission break with a man holding a ten pound weight from the skin of his privates for ten minutes behind a screen. The Sociometry Fair was held at the park, an art/science event that provided unique exhibits of art and that only convened once every four years.
Christopher Reitmaier or Somniative, a resident artist at the park, lured Jarboe of the Swans to perform there. He cooked her a fine meal as part of the deal and days after the show she said performing at the park was like performing in “Czeckoslovakia in 1986” which I took as a great tribute to the park. I’m not sure if she meant it as a compliment. Speed Levitch, a friend of the folks in the Yard Dogs, opened the show that day speaking poetry into the wind and a crowd of about a hundred, a big crowd at the KGPA.
The shows, big and small, are too numerous to list: Mear One was the headliner for Iceberg Slick’s Five Finger Miscount massive graffiti art show. Professor 8000% brought his paintings to life with an actual performance of the characters in his artwork including the astronaut and a doctor or nurse or two. You had to be there. One show, I forget the group, used a smoke machine in the living room and we could literally see nothing in the room. People had to crawl to get from one place to another. One woman, Shari, a regular, said to me later that the experience changed her life.
There were art shows and they would last as long as anybody wanted them to last, although when the final closing time appeared and all realized it was over I would always put Chuck Mangione’s “Feel’s So Good” on the record player and everybody would know.
The memory of moments is what gets me a lot. There was the time that Jeff Druszkowski, a resident artist, walked into the living room where a group was talking on the couches. Brent Holmes, also a Laser Vida member, I believe, was speaking on a subject with quite a loud voice which is one of the things that makes talking to him very interesting and fun. For some reason Jeff walked in and let out a howl in the center of the room that lasted almost a minute as an obvious counter to Brent’s bellowing baritone. I hoped Brent wouldn’t take it personally. This was Jeff you had to understand; Someone. The filmmaker who made “5.” I know Brent Holmes has a lot to say, but his volume tickled an urge in Jeff and he let out that howl. The length and steadiness of the scream was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen.
Then there was a time where a man in his fifties rode up on his motorcycle, came into the show that night and proceeded to take all his clothes off and do the whole thing nudist-style. He had a really serene way about him. You could see he didn’t think of it as dirty. I had to tell him to put his clothes back on but I wasn’t a stickler and then later I saw he still had his clothes off. The next week, it turns out, there had been a Citylife writer there and after talking about Blardvark, our megalomaniacal cat at the park, she wrote about the naked man and just loved it. It was a glowing review. You couldn’t do that today. It would be filmed and sent out and the park would have been cancelled and nobody would have been able to have experienced the wonder of the scene. That’s what a scene is, people watching people because they are allowing themselves to be free and expressionistic.
I remember after a Yard Dogs show we found a cell phone. We got a hold of the owner and it turned out to be the top bureaucrat for Clark County itself, the County Manager himself. I don’t remember his name. Imagine that. One of the group, Nick, said to him when he came by the next day that he was at the most underground place in the city. He was telling this to the person whose very knowledge of the place would mean that the park was no longer underground. But you couldn’t shake the underground nature of things back then. It was like kids had just started doing things and proving themselves to be artists and performers when there were very few ways or places to show this stuff off.
In 2002 the main art gallery for the locals was at The Arts Factory, The Community Arts Collective or CAC was continually doing shows. I was told it could take a year to get a show in the CAC. We gave you a show pretty much if you called us on the phone. Kirby Brownell who was originally with Laser Vida; was the curator of the Gianaclis Gallery and is currently the curator of the Gianaclis collection itself- put together an all-women show and included the work of a woman who lived next door at the motel. It was a thrill for her to see her pieces in an actual show. She never really thought of herself as being big time enough to have a show. But she was. She mattered and her artwork was unique.
I guess I could go on and on about the moments that I experienced at the park: the shenanigans at all three of the Sh*thoof film festivals that we had. The making of actual movies at the park. Jam sessions with groups of people, a practice popularized by Laser Vida. The time I stood in the park and looked through the window and saw people going round and round while doing the tango in the Blue Room on Halloween Night, where my grandfather used to live. They almost looked like ghosts to me. It felt like a dream in honor of my grandpa. A fairy tale. He bought the place in 1960 and we’ve been going at it in different ways ever since.
I haven’t even talked about the theatre scene at the park. The Shakespearean play I was in was the core group of what would become Cockroach Theatre Company which is now Vegas Theatre Company. Cockroach performed a play in the junk yard; The Indian Wants the Bronx.
Towards the end of the park I invited Insurgo Theatre Movement on to the property. We had a vibrant theatre scene then and would do various plays born out of a writing group on Sunday nights. Other works were performed, including by resident artists at the time Ernie Curcio and Barbara Rollins. Other resident artists did work here as well at the time including Erica Griffin and Mundana Ess-haghabadi.
Ernest Hemmings (tstmrkt) was the first thespian to show up at the theatre gates way at the beginning of the park though, Hemmings arrived with Ryan Alabaugh, both actors from Cleveland. We did many Test Market shows back then (it has been changed to tstmrkt since). I even became “the third guy” for them actually going on tour with them one summer after Alabaugh left and Fran Gordon took his place as Hemming’s comedic accomplice.
Hemmings also threw the first of his Beckett Festivals at the park and did several other major theatrical events including the immersive Halloween event where he re-enacted the Jim Jones massacre in Guyana. You just never knew what to expect.